Among the Trees, the Boards, and the Planes: Relational Materiality and the Meaning of Work in the Craft of Musical Instruments

This paper explores how meaningful labor is co-constituted among forest environments, craft materials, and artisan musical instrument makers in the Allegheny highlands of West Virginia. Bringing a relational approach of materiality to the study of the meaning of work, I suggest that affective relationships cultivated between makers and materials during the craft process contribute to the liveliness of instruments, or their roles as life-like and cohabitating beings in workshop spaces and homes. This liveliness of instruments and craft materials serve to “re-enchant” labor that has been effectively disenchanted by rational logics and instrumental processes of the region’s extractive industries and capitalocentric economies. I follow the process of creating a violin, an enduring material symbol of Appalachian lifeways, in an apprentice with a master maker to show how the skill and intention of the craft laborer and the agentive, substantive being of wood craft materials co-constitute meaningful work. Illustrating the temporality and materiality of such co-constitutive relationships and their resultant influence on the re-enchantment of labor processes, I hope to demonstrate the importance of such relational frameworks and their utility for exploring the materially driven spheres of Appalachian political economies and ecologies.